Nielis waved to Marina, who looked radiant with her growing belly and excited smile. The crutches weren't perfect, but he seemed to have gotten the hang of using them. Thankfully people moved out of the way as they crossed the market, on their way to the Galloping Mongoose. Neilis bumped open the door with one of his crutches and entered, finding a table not too far from the bar.
Grotnug brought them some ale and greeted them.
"You look like you're doing all right," Harry remarked. "That was nice of your wife to invite me for lunch."
He waved dismissively. "She wouldn't have let up until I let her thank you. But I'm glad you met her, you were right. I feel like an idiot for doubting her."
"You were in a tough spot."
"So, you're really going to go see the Magistrate?" Neilis asked.
"I need to hear back from Hestius first," Harry said, rubbing his chin. "She said it might be a few days."
He turned his head towards the stairs where thumping noises signalled the arrival of Hermione, bearing a recognizable angry look. Without warning, she sat down next to Harry and snatched the ale from in front of him, drinking deeply. The reason for that became apparent when Ron came down not much later, and barely spared any of them a look before blasting out of the inn.
Harry was planning to stick to his time-tested survival method: 'If they're fighting, just shut up.' He just ordered another ale.
"How was lunch?" she asked with a forced smile.
"Pretty great," Harry answered. "Marina was a perfect hostess. That sugar pie was delicious."
"Perks of marrying a baker's daughter," Neilis said with a smile. "And with the money we made we'll have enough to test her skills for a while. Does Ginny cook well?"
It was difficult not to be nostalgic when thinking of the dinners at Potter Cottage. In those moments when he had felt truly ungrounded, even during the meetings at the Burrow. Those evenings in company of Ginny and Luna had been an oasis for them, and the nights an outlet. That was gone now. "Yes. I'm – I'm a very lucky guy."
They chatted some more. Neilis finished his beer and left, wishing them good luck.
"He forgot where our honeymoon was," Hermione said after a while.
Harry frowned. "Forgot?"
"Yes, can you believe that?"
No. He couldn't believe it. The memory of Ron bragging about it for weeks at the Auror Department was something he would never get out of his head. As the mental dominoes started to fall, he thought back to their conversation.
"He didn't know about Luna," Harry remarked.
"He… he does, Harry. Of course he does, it's the worst kept secret in the wizarding world."
"She's 'holding on', that's what he said," Harry growled, tightening his fist. "I'm such an idiot."
"He was in a cell for weeks!"
Harry ignored her. "You know, I get that she might not have come, or that Ron would have done it alone. But the Ron I know would at least talk to her, she lost as much as he did when we disappeared..."
"You're wrong!" she said with a tremulous voice.
He turned to look at her, forgetting his anger. It wasn't fair, but he would once again have to ask the world of her. He just hoped they had enough fortitude to make it through. "Hermione, I'm going to need your help."
It took three more days for Lady Hestius to come back to him with an answer because of last minute planning. As it turned out being a Paladin held a lot of sway, and the Magistrate had personally penned his response.
Esteemed Paladin Harry,
I am greatly pleased to hear of the initiative you showed in your journey west, as well as your loyalty to the great city of Cadmeum by bringing it to my attention. I have conversed with my closest advisors and have decided to invite you and your companions to plead your case in an upcoming hearing this following Sundayat dusk. All the city's greatest minds will be in attendance to provide assistance.
May the Gods be with you,
Magistrate Garibald Beldecor, Keeper of the Three River City
"Tomorrow, this is good," Malfoy said. "Do you think our story will convince them?"
"I hope so," Harry answered. "If only we had the witness."
"It will work, Harry," Hermione said softly, looking at Ron. "You both got Amycus Carrow to flip against his own sister, this is nothing in comparison."
"Right," Ron said with a grin. "Let's not worry."
Ginny chose that time to come into the inn. She sat down with them.
"Got your letter?" she smiled, reading over it.
"Told you Hermione's cheat sheet was easy to use."
She turned to Hermione. "We'd be lost without you, wouldn't we?"
Hermione weakly smiled back.
Ginny took Harry by the arm. "Want to go out for a bit?"
"Sounds good to me," Harry said with a sigh. "We'll see you later then."
Ginny discreetly made sure they weren't followed on the way north.
"Yeah," Harry said, "third time we catch him in the act. Now to see if Clayton found our man."
"Hm. I'm worried about Hermione."
Harry let out a deep sigh. "We'll just have to be there for her."
They arrived at the green door of the Private Ear. Clayton's muscle, Bolge, gave them a friendly hello and sent them to see her. She was busying herself with a deck of cards, humming a tune to herself. When they were seated, she let out a long satisfied exhalation.
"Don't you just love it when everything comes together?" she grinned.
"You've..." Ginny started.
"Got him? Oh we got him all right." She let out a giddy laugh. "The good stuff!" she called to the bar.
A bottle and three cups were brought and together they toasted.
"She should get here soon," Harry said. "Surprising, you all managed to work together so well."
"It's all good, lad," she said, pouring one more glass. "I got to clean up my operation, and the big miss gets to offer up the rat to her boss. This is my town, don't want to leave it to the dogs. Plus, now the big man looks at us more favourably."
"Well aren't we all friendly," Ginny quipped.
There was another knock at the door and Bolge let in three cloaked figures. Clayton carefully observed the middle one as the hood was let down to reveal the black haired Captain of the Guard. Clayton stood up and walked over to her.
"Hey, love," she said, appraisingly letting her eyes linger on the rigid, taller woman. "Thought I wouldn't ever get this close to you again without getting a blade in my side."
"Clayton," Lady Hestius coolly replied, "do you have the prisoner?"
Clayton fixed her hungrily for a moment, fingers twitching at her side. She then turned to the door in the back.
The door slammed open. Two men dressed in mixed leather fighting gear dragged in a bound and gagged man, bloodied and moaning in pain. Clayton walked over to him, cleaning her teeth with a fingernail.
"Here's our troublemaker." She pulled him by his matted blonde hair, his clear blue eyes fraught with pain. "You think I'm bad, wait until you get to the keep's dungeons."
The cloaked men of the Guard who had come flanking Lady Hestius took the man into custody, putting a burlap sack over his head. The Captain and Cutthroat locked eyes one final time.
"I'll see you around, Cara," Clayton said.
With that, she put her hood back up, and the three disguised visitors exited the way they'd come, captive in tow. Moments later they were all sat back at the table like nothing had happened. She took out a pipe and lit the tobacco within.
"Things 'bout to change aren't they, Paladin?" she said, staring emptily ahead. "This sailor can feel it. Storm's coming to the three rivers, 'n anyone without sea legs 's gonna end up in shark infested waters."
Harry could hardly disagree. They were probably going to be on limited time from now on.
The day of the meeting with the Magistrate came quickly. Hermione had been helping at Norbert's shop again and had taken up residence there. Malfoy had slipped back into his acolyte's habit and was helping at the temple. This left Ron, Harry and Ginny at the Galloping Mongoose. Harry would help out Grotnug where he could and took out Mildred just to occupy himself, at the benefit of free drinks.
When Sunday afternoon rolled around, tension hung in the air like a thick fog. Harry, being who he was, was allowed his chain and sword. The others wore their normal clothes and would be asked to leave their weapons.
They met up and made their way to the noble's district. Ginny walked with Hermione just behind Harry and Ron. Arriving there, the Magistrate's welcoming party was waiting. Lady Hestius, four guards with the Castle Guard's golden symbol, and a man and woman in servant's clothing.
"Good," the Captain said, "we'll be your escort to the keep."
The guards flanked them and the servants were just behind.
"Bit mental having this entire part of the city where most people can't go," Ron remarked.
"I suppose it could be worse," Harry said. "Besides, it's only a small part of the noble's district that is off-limits."
"Yeah you would say that, being all chummy with them. Most people are stuck in huts," he said pointing to a sumptuous manor, "while they live in these. With servants and everything."
"Says the man who's a partner in one of the most successful businesses in Wizarding Britain. Remind me how much your collection of dragon leather suits cost."
Ron had gotten less careful lately, he thought. Which was just exactly why they had to act so quickly. As they continued chatting on the way there, the keep's pale limestone walls came into view. Hard corners and carved arches in concentric courtyards and towers. In the middle of it was a bastion adorned with the heraldry of the three rivers: the wheel and the fork.
It was a city in itself. Busy, sprawling and well-guarded. They walked along a safe corridor leading to the centre of it, much of the keep left unseen. They took a side-entrance. Most of the jagged hallways were empty where they walked. They ascended and descended again, anyone would have a hard time keeping their sense of direction through here. The keep's labyrinthine make-up was as much of a defence as its walls, and only the Magistrate's retinue knew how to navigate it well.
They arrived at the torch marked with a white 'x'. In the open room ahead, Harry dashed aside at the whisper of the spell behind him.
The green eyed mage disguised as a servant threw out three small silver bands which in an instant expanded and wrapped themselves tightly around Ron's body. Harry went for the ring on Ron's left hand before he could realize what was happening. With a cry and a tug, it was off, and like oozing tendrils Harry witnessed the rotten hatred spilling from the person masquerading as his best friend. His face though, stayed the same.
"What the hell is going on Harry!" Not-Ron cried.
Two nights ago, Friday, dusk.
Harry held out the note to Ginny. "It's code, right?"
"You really got this from a guard?" she asked.
"Well I'm fairly certain it comes from the Magistrate's people."
"Interesting," she said, going over the letter. "There's a secret entrance to the keep by the park on the north side of it. They're inviting you."
"Wow," Harry sighed, "this is some good news. I was afraid they wouldn't take me seriously."
Ginny sighed and folded it. "So you really think Ron is an impostor?"
Harry sadly nodded. "I've been pressing harder and harder about details on his time at the AD, told him how glad I was Greyback was rotting in Azkaban. Not one bloody peep, instead he went with it. You really think that's something he would overlook? The most infamous werewolf being alive or not? Whoever this is, it's not the person who had my back for so long."
"You have to make sure," Ginny said.
"Did it say if I had to come alone?"
"You want to –"
"– bring Hermione, if possible. I need to see her anyway. She needs to hear it for herself, otherwise..."
"It didn't say, but are you sure that's a good idea?"
Whether it was a good idea or not was beside the point. Harry knew that if he was in her position, he might not take it so well. The past weeks the possibility of Ron being back had been dangled in front of them, and they had taken the bait.
Under the cover of the evening, making sure Ron would stay for dinner in the Galloping Mongoose, Harry went to Norbert's workshop.
"It's late," the half-elf wizard said.
"I know, Norgariel," he forced himself. Hermione had come from the back, looking tired. "Sorry to barge in, but I need you to come with me," he told her.
Her expression told him she had an inkling as to why he had come. "Going won't change anything. You're wrong. You have to be wrong, Harry, you're just I don't know, angry, confused, or –"
"I promise after this I won't try to convince you any more." He turned to Norgariel again. "If someone comes asking for her, tell them she's asleep and not to be disturbed."
The man frowned, but didn't comment.
He brought a black cloak borrowed from Ginny for her to wear, and he had his own attire.
"You've been keeping away from him," Harry remarked as they started the walk north-east.
She turned to look away. "I know it's hard to imagine but I've been busy –"
"– studying? At night too I imagine then. It's come up a few times."
She said nothing for the rest of the way there. They walked through the northern park looking for their contact. A man stood by a well near the keep wall, raising a hand at them.
"Greetings," he said, looking them over with pale green eyes. "You must be Hermione, Norbert's apprentice. My name is Erwin, Archmage of The Three River City."
"You were sent to meet us?" Hermione asked in surprise.
The man smiled and answered in a hazy voice. "The Magistrate trusts me with many tasks, and secrecy in this case is paramount. Since I would be needed, it seemed appropriate. You have the hair?"
"Yes," she answered.
Erwin knelt beside the well and spoke an incantation. The well seemed to melt away revealing stairs moving down into a passage. "Follow me."
Their destination must have been subterranean. Their path was lit by a small sceptre emanating magical light held by Erwin. Through the catacomb-like passages they arrived at a door guarded by two men in half plate.
"I'm not sure I need to tell you, but do not speak out of turn," Erwin said, looking back. "Your status as Paladin can only buy you so much good will."
He pushed the doors open and they entered the circular room. Only two people were there. One middle-aged man, dressed in fine blue and gold clothes, sat on the raised stone chair prominent in the room. And at his side was none other than the Cleric Zalamus, his expression unreadable.
They stood a good distance away from the presumed throne, when Erwin introduced them.
"Magistrate Beldecor, I bring to you Paladin Harry as requested, and his companion Hermione, apprentice of Norgariel."
Harry bowed, and Hermione did so reluctantly as well. The Magistrate held up a hand, rings glinting in the torch light. "Well done, Erwin."
He cleared his throat. "It seems that the only thing that is a constant with you, Paladin Harry, is how much trouble you are to my city. First, I get word of Captain Hestius that you have evidence of a startling conspiracy involving the cities west, then I get word that one of your fellow travellers might be involved in it. Is that an accurate assessment, in your opinion?"
"Yes, Magistrate," Harry replied nervously.
"Before we continue," the Magistrate said, "there's something I'd like to clear up. Mainly, the matter of your origins."
He took a galleon out of his pocket, flipping it over in his hand. "So many rulers can not be bothered with details. But coin is hardly a detail, it is trade, prosperity, and identity. I wish you to tell me where you come from. The place you told Father Zalamus about, 'London', does not exist. I had all records checked, and more."
Harry stood frozen for a moment, and consulted Hermione. He could tell she was afraid of the consequences, of putting their trust in someone they had just met. But there was also resignation in her eyes; she wanted to know, and therefore trust in their new allies. He nodded.
With a deep breath, Hermione resolutely turned to the three men. "It is my belief that our method of arrival here was related to – or with the help of interplanar, or interdimensional travel."
While both Zalamus and Erwin had shocked looks on their faces, the Magistrate merely narrowed his eyes. "You are not lying," he said. "This… then the prophecy is true… and the traitor in your midst..."
A moment later, he waved Erwin to move forward.
"The hair," Erwin said.
Hermione opened her pouch with unsteady hands and handed over the lock of hair from Silenus. Erwin took a few dozen from them and tucked the rest inside his robe. Eyes closed, he cast his spell. For about a minute, his eyes moved behind his glowing eyelids. He looked towards the pair when the spell finished.
"It is him," he said, turning to the Magistrate.
Harry took a step forward. "Magistrate, if I may."
Zalamus fixed him with an icy stare, but the Magistrate nodded.
"Is there a way for us to know?"
"You insolent –"
Zalmus' protests were cut short by another wave of the Magistrate's hand. "It was my intention from the start for us to be on the same page. And am I correct that your request is not out of distrust?"
"It isn't, Magistrate."
"Then, we shall begin. Zalamus."
The tall cleric moved forward and they all formed into a circle. "We will now by the grace of Cadmus be able to pool our knowledge and experience. This is a willing act, therefore if you resist the spell, this meeting will be wasted."
As the spell hit, a shared space opened up in their minds. They were aware on a mental level of the others, able to share doubts, fears, thoughts. It was hard not to reflexively communicate with each other. For a second, the anxiety Hermione was feeling entered his consciousness, and he had to cut it off for it not to feed into him.
"The death first," the Magistrate's voice echoed in their head.
They were immediately drawn to the inside view of a hut, Silenus' hut Harry knew. There came a rapping at the door.
"Hey! Silenus, right?"
The voice was obvious even through the closed door. Outside of the memory he could hear Hermione's breathing grow more uneven.
"Who is here?" Silenus replied.
"Sorry, mate. Harry couldn't come, he wanted me to relay a message."
"Well, go ahead!"
"Shite. I think I can see the guards come. Can you let me inside?"
A moment of hesitation later, Silenus opened the door, revealing Ron's freckled smiling face. He hurriedly got inside.
"Strange times, innit?"
"So?" Silenus said nervously.
"Well, pleased to meet you." Ron said, extending a hand.
It almost came out of nowhere. A steel sword flashing straight into Silenus' gut.
Harry took Hermione's hand as she whimpered.
Silenus slumped to the floor with a sad look in his eyes, and then the vision stopped.
The rest of the ordeal would be no less difficult, but it was necessary. They'd pick up the pieces later. At least now he was better equipped to do that.
Present day, unknown room in the Cadmeum Keep.
Zalamus appeared into the room, flanked by two other clerics and several guards. Behind him, the Magistrate had come to observe the interrogation. Zalamus cast a spell and fixed Harry and his group.
"He's ready, my liege will assist as has been agreed."
Harry thankfully nodded and turned back to the impostor. "You're going to tell us who you are."
"Who the hell do you bloody think I am?" Ron spat. "What, you couldn't stomach me being here with you, that it?"
"We found Padfoot," Harry replied. "He's sitting in the keep's dungeons right now. What? Nothing? He spilled rather easily. How you had recruited him, almost five months back now. You made him send the letter. Did you know Clayton would contact Ginny for the job because I was doing deliveries at the Golden Flounder?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," he mumbled.
"Lie," the Magistrate declared.
"What, you're going to believe some stranger over me?"
"Yes," Harry said. "It was when you didn't remember your own honeymoon that I realized. You didn't know about our lives as you should. So you can stop pretending."
"Magic," Ron scoffed. "Yeah I did recruit 'Padfoot'. Not that the plan was my idea. I thought it'd never work, but you followed anyway."
"The letter was a setup."
"'Course it bloody was," Ron replied, grunting and trying to move, but the bands were holding him motionless. "We paid Erebus, used you to take care of him. You get the letter, come and find me. So what?"
There was no time to go easy, he had to crack him. "Then you killed Silenus. Don't even bother denying. Hermione was smart enough to cut off a piece of his hair, which we gave to the Archmage."
"So who the hell are you?" Harry continued. "And how do you know so much about us?"
"Why don't you get it through your bloody head? I AM Ron Weasley!"
Harry glanced at the Magistrate, who stood unmoving. He was telling the truth?
"The man I married would never kill someone in cold blood!" Hermione said with red eyes.
Ron (though was he really?) had a sly smile on his face. "That's not how it happened on my end," he said straining against his bindings. "Why would you marry poor Ron Weasley when you had Harry all to yourself?"
"Me and Hermione never –"
"'Cause that sucker came back, didn't he? Bet you would've forgotten all about little old Ron if he hadn't... wouldn't you?"
He was struggling worse than ever. No refutation came. "So you're not the Ron we knew and a murderer at that. What else? And why you?"
"I was chosen. I was strong enough, not like that twat you call Ron back in your world. Now he wouldn't have been able to draw that sword. And he wouldn't have been able to do what I had to."
"Oh, you'll see soon."
"How did you get here?" Harry said to the pale copy of his friend.
"Same as you did. He brought me here."
Not-Ron cackled psychotically at the question. "The one who's going to get me out of this mess."
All present were on guard, but the crack of thunder surprised them all. The smell of ozone in the air was pungent as all eyes landed on the figure in a red gold-trimmed cloak that had just appeared above Not-Ron. The guards moved in a defensive position around the Magistrate.
"Now, now," the man said in a playful voice, "always bragging, aren't you, Ron?"
Erwin had moved quickly, releasing three more silver bands. They fought to find the new target, but fell uselessly on the floor as if repelled by a solid wall. He couldn't let them get away. Harry decided instantly, his sword flashing from his side in a decided thrust towards the figure.
A lightning-fast hand grabbed hold of the silver sword, it grinding to a halt as if it had struck steel. A crooked grin played on the hooded man's face.
"Is it Paladin, this time? How will that particular twist work out for you?" he said.
Harry tried to wrest the sword out of the hand, metal creaking as he did.
With a loud twang, it snapped at the hilt.
"Say goodbye, 'Ron'. We have work to do."
"Suck my co –"
Before Not-Ron could finish his expletive, both men disappeared in front of the assembled clerics, wizards and warriors. Harry could only stand there, feeling powerless as he saw the magnificent blade broken, and the people around him mute.
AN: This chapter was as confusing for me to write as it probably is for you to read. But it had to be structured this way, I think. If it's still unclear please let me know. Hopefully Ron fans aren't too disappointed, but with the trio planned it really wasn't a choice to bring him back, not really.
On a different note, QUESTION for the readers: How opposed would you be to skippable lemons (smut)?
Thank you to everyone for your faves/reviews/subs/etc… It really does help.